J. Edgar Hoover called Dr. King a "notorious liar"; he also labeled him the most dangerous man in America. In his official C.I.A. file Dr. King's code name was Zorro. Every April 4th we observe the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but the reality is that he died a hated man. Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders of his day lived with constant death threats and alienation from many of their own people. The revisionist history associated with the civil rights leaders of the 60's is typical of the way we (as a nation) deal with uncomfortable subjects.
After Martin's death James Baldwin left the United States. He said he couldn't take it anymore; Medgar, Malcolm, and Martin were his friends. He felt that he was the last one left. Almost 50 years after his death we have political parties fighting over who is the rightful heir to the King legacy; when in reality, he had sharp criticisms for both parties. His stance on the Vietnam war was seen as treasonous. Now, in our hyper patriotic culture the pastors and spiritual leaders actively support the war efforts as they play golf with the president. We've fallen a long way. Dr. King use to say, "I'm a cross bearer before I'm a flag waver." He felt every flag was subordinate to the cross.
I salute Dr. King for his courage and humility. Dr. King, like Gandhi and Oscar Romero, was a prophetic voice who paid the ultimate price for standing up against the mendacity and evil of the system they lived under. I too have a dream; one day, I will awaken and our spiritual leaders will embrace their inner Moses and push back against Pharaoh. One day our preachers will be more like Jeremiah and less like Peter.
I'll close with my favorite passage from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I have not said to my people: "Get rid of your discontent." Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . ." So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime--the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.